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The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t be Jammed

Editors Note: Why is this in here? The reason we have the clip below in an art magazine because it explains the phenomena of how an art movement called “anti-art” became some of the most hip and in demand “art product around”, despite that it was in opposition to all things happening in a consumerist society and the art world. The varieties of oppostion to society varied as the art world and popular culture changed, but the core idea was to make art that attempted to defeat the trends that were starting to emerge in the art world – namely the emergence on an art market.

The post WWII version was to make art that couldn’t be sold. It’s a whole discussion in itself, but the idea was to make visual art without the marketable artifacts, art that didn’t create a product. For example, performance art, bodies creating an environment for just a moment in time. When the artists went away, the art was supposed to vanish with it, and it couldn’t be sold.  But not so fast.

The anti-art movement is fascinating because its goal to destroy the art world completely, totally, wholesale, unequivocally failed in its mission. And ironically, it got completely co-opted, became the engine that drove the contemporary art force, and the spirit of anti-art became the dominant force that permeates every major piece of contemporary art that’s discussed today.

So anti-art failed so gloriously that it took over the entire art world. This philosophy behind Rebel Sell explains how that can happen.
The audio below has a one-hour lecture they did – my head was spinning for two days.

[powerpress]

(swiped from http://www.goodreads.ca/rebelsell/)

The Rebel Sell

Presentation as part of the University of Toronto Bookstore’s Reading Series, 13 October 2004
at Innis Town Hall

By Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath

Andrew Potter: September 2003 marked a turning point in the development of Western Civilization. It was the month that Adbusters magazine started accepting orders for the black spot sneaker, it’s own signature brand of subversive running shoes. After that day, no rational person could possibly believe that there’s any tension between mainstream and alternative culture. After that day, it became obvious to everyone that cultural rebellion, of the type epitomized by Adbusters magazine, is not a threat to the system, it is the system.

Founded in 1989, Adbusters is the flagship publication of the culture jamming movement. In their view, society’s become so thoroughly permeated with propaganda and lies, largely as a consequence of advertising that the culture as a whole has become an enormous system of ideology. All designed to reproduce faith in the system. The goal of the culture jammers is quite literally to jam the culture by subverting messages used to reproduce this faith and blocking the channels by which it is propagated. This is turn is thought to have radical political consequences.

In 1999 Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn argued that culture jamming, quote ‘will become to our era what civil rights was to the 60s, what feminism was to the 70s, what environmental activism was to the 80s’. Ten years later, he’s using the Adbusters brand to flog his own trademark line of running shoes (and its worth mentioning that, in a copy cat move, Mother Jones magazine is now marketing a, I believe its called, The No Sweat sneaker, and I believe, in a defensive move, Converse is now marketing the Imagine Sneaker, which has the lyrics to John Lennon’s Imagine printed on it. So, you can sort of see where this is going). Anyhow…

What happened? Did Adbusters sell out? Our answer is: absolutely not. And I think it’s extremely important that we all see and understand this. Adbsuters did not sell out because there’s nothing to sell out in the first place. They never had a revolutionary doctrine. What they had was a warmed over version of the counter-culture thinking that has dominated Leftist politics since the 1960s. In this type of counter-culture politics, far from being a revolutionary doctrine, has been one of the primary forces driving consumer capitalism for the past 40 years.

In other words, what we seen on display in Adbusters magazine is, and always has been, the true spirit of capitalism. The episode with the running shoes just serves to prove the point. Kalle Lasn described the sneaker project as a quote, ‘ground breaking marketing scheme to uncool Nike’. He said, ‘if it succeeds it will set a precedent that will revolutionize capitalism’. But how exactly is this supposed to revolutionize capitalism? Reebok, Adidas, Puma, Vans, and a half dozen other companies have been trying to uncool Nike for decades. That’s called marketplace competition. It’s called, identifying a niche and exploiting it. In fact, it is the whole point of capitalism.

Lasn defends the sneaker project against various critics, pointing out that his shoes, unlike those of his rivals, will not be manufactured in sweat shops. Although they will be manufactured at a factory in Portugal, where, (and this is a quotation taken straight from the Black Spot sneaker website) quote, ‘the owners have a reputation for being excellent employers. Although many of the employees at the factories have cars, others are often seen walking home through vineyards and olive groves during the course of the workday, to enjoy their one and half hour lunchbreak, waving to bosses and neighbors as they pass’. This is nice. But ideas like fair trade and ethical marketing are hardly revolutionary ideas, and they certainly represent no threat to the capitalist system. So consumers are willing to pay more for shoes made by happy workers, or for eggs laid by happy chickens. Then there’s money to be made in bringing these goods to market. It’s a business model that’s already been successfully exploited to great effect by Body Shop and Starbucks among other companies.

We use this little episode to help us understand what we call, ‘paradox of anti-consumerism’. Because the type of anti-consumerism that is represented in Adbusters magazine has become one of the most important cultural forces in millennial North American life across every class and social demographic. Sure, as a society we’re collectively spending record amounts of money on luxury goods, vacations, designer clothing, household comforts. But take a look at the non-fiction bestseller lists. For years, they’ve been dominated by books that are deeply critical of consumerism. No Logo, Culture Jam, Luxury Fever, Fast Food Nation. You can now buy Adbusters at your local music store, clothing store, and so on. Two of the most popular and critically acclaimed films in the past decade were Fight Club and American Beauty, both of which offered almost identical indictments of modern consumer society.

So what can we conclude from this? Well one thing we can conclude is that the market does an extremely good job at responding to consumer demand for anti-consumerist products. There was actually an article on this in the New York Times a while ago called ‘The Alienation Market’, it talked about The Corporation, and Michael Moore’s movie and so on. At the same time, how can we all denounce consumerism and still find ourselves living in a consumerist society? If we did a quick straw poll in this room and I asked everyone who’s in favour of consumerism to put up their hands I’m not sure there’d be that many takers. But this is the puzzle right? I mean, everybody seems to be opposed to the shallow materialistic nature of contemporary consumer culture, and yet nothing ever seems to change.

But somebody is doing all the shopping. Everybody’s a rebel in their own way, and yet the system continues along its merry way. Completely unperturbed. If anything, this system seems to be getting stronger, and consumerism seems to be getting worse. So what we need to do is step back a bit, and try to figure out how we’ve gotten ourselves into this situation. In particular, we need to ask ourselves two question: first of all, ‘what exactly are people rebelling against?’ Second: ‘How are they rebelling when they claim to be striking a blow against consumerism?’ The answer can be stated quite simply but we’re academics so what will do is unpack the story a bit for you.

Most of the rebelling against consumer society has taken the form of what we call counter culture rebellion. It’s the sort of rebellion that’s based on the disappearing society we refer to, following Thomas Frank, who wrote ‘The Conquest of Cool as ‘the counter-cultural idea’. And, its an idea that emerged out of the so-called Critique of Mass Society – a set of ideas developed primarily in the 1950s, and which have gone on to dominate the radical political imagination since 1960s.

The central idea of the Critique of Mass Society is quite simple. It’s that the enormous wealth of our society is based upon the technology of mass production: you’ve got the factory, the assembly line, the hierarchically organized corporation, and the impersonal state bureaucracy. We accept all this because we appreciate the wealth the system produces, largely in the form of creature comforts and household consumer goods.

But it’s a Faustian bargain, because in accepting the benefits of the machine of mass society, we also submit to its discipline. So according to the critique of mass society, capitalism requires conformity in order to function. Not just among the workers, but also among consumers. This is because mass production generates enormous oversupply of homogenous goods which threaten to outstrip demand. Thus the system must distill a set of manufactured desires into the population; to consume ever greater quantities of these mass produced goods. In other words, the system requires conformity, conformity among the workers to run the machines, and conformity amongst the consumers to purchase the product.

Yet there can’t be mass consumption without a widespread agreement as to what the needs and wants of life are. Thus the system requires substantial psychological unity among the masses, a set of uniform manufactured desires and the only way this can be achieved is by extensive psychological manipulation of the population. In the consumer society, this is the function of advertising.

Thus conformity of life and conformity of thought are indissolubly linked as a complacent and placid population submits itself to the demand of mass society, in order to achieve the ever elusive rewards promised by advertising. So this is the story, I’m not telling you this, this is the story, this is the critique of mass society that we think is underlying a lot of rebellion. Now it’s important to understand this is not just a theory about capitalism narrowly construed or narrowly conceived. It’s a theory about our entire culture.

So, according to this theory, our culture is a complete integrated system in which every sector and institution including the state, the churches, the medical establishement, and so on, each of these institions supports the others in conferring these demands of conformity. The education system is particular plays a vital role, because it’s the schools, it’s in the schools, where children have their independence and their creativity literally beaten out of them.

We call this, Joe and I call this, the Pink Floyd Theory of Education, after the scene in the movie, The Wall right, where a bunch of uniform clad students are standing on the conveyor belt singing, ‘we don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control,’ as they’re slowly being fed into a meat grinder. (Sounds like Grade 6).

It follows from this analysis of mass society as a totalizing system of enforced conformity is that, in order to affect change, it is not necessary to engage in traditional political action, in the manner, of say, the old fashioned socialists. There’s no need to form political coalitions, no need to lobby politicians, no need to work within standard party structures. In fact, this sort of engagement is likely to be seen as counterproductive, because all it does is validate and re-enforce the existing order.

According to the Counter-Cultural idea, what people need to be liberated from is not a specific class that oppresses them, or from a system of exploitation that imposes poverty on them. It’s because people are trapped in a gilded cage and have come to love their own enslavement. Society controls them by limiting their imagination and suppressing their deepest needs. So what they need to escape from its own conformity, and to do, they must reject the culture in it’s entirety. They must form a counter-culture. One based on freedom and individuality.

Theodore Roszak, who’s 1969 book, The Making of a Counter-Culture introduces the term counter-culture ‘counter-culture’ to general usage. He referred to the system of mass manipulation as a ‘technocracy’. He said because the discipline of the machine and the factory floor have been extended to encompass every dimension of human life, nothing short of a total rejection of the entire culture and society will suffice. In Roszak’s view, traditional Leftist parties, not to mention communists and trade-unionists had become the stooges of the technocracy. He said, quote, ‘this brand of politics finishes with merely redesigning the turrets and towers of the technocratic citadel. It is the foundations of the edifice that must be stopped’.

And Roszack wasn’t the only one who thought this way. Charles Reich, in his best-selling book, The Greening of America writes, quote ‘the revolution must be cultural. For culture controls the economic and political machine, not vice-versa. The machinery that turns out what pleases and forces them to buy but if the culture changes the machine had no choice but comply’.

The upshot of this critique of mass society is that the best way to rebel against the system is to be a non-conformist. That is to say, if the culture demands conformity, one can resist the system by engaging in non-standard cultural activities. We can see this, quite clearly, in the sort of hippie version of the counter culture where doing guerrilla theatre, playing in a band, making avant-garde art, taking drugs, having lots of wild sex – all these are seen as ways of sticking it to the man. Most importantly they’re seen as having huge political consequences.

Since then the list of things considered subversive has grown quite long. There’s a very long list in the book, I won’t read the whole thing but among them we find fashion statements ranging from long hair for men and short hair for women. Every form of popular music including jazz, rock punk, and rap. Extreme sports like surfing, snowboarding, and skateboarding. And social innovations like birth control, divorce, interracial sex, gay marriage, and post-modernism.

It’s important to see what profound re-orientation to radical politics this represents. Traditional Leftist concerns such as poverty, living standards, or access to medical care come to be seen as superficial in the sense that they only aim at institutional reform. The counter-culture by contrast is interested in what Roszack calls the ‘psychic liberation of the oppressed’. Thus, the hipster, cooling his heels in a jazz club, comes to be seen as a more profound critic to civil society than a civil rights activist working to enlist voters, or the feminist politician campaigning for a constitutional amendment.

Even more problematic is that we begin to see with the Critique of Mass Society – we see the emergence of what Thomas Frank again calls the Rebel Consumer. If the system requires the same level of conformity among consumers that it does among workers, then it stands to reason that you can’t fight back against the system simply be refusing to consume the mass produced goods that the system tries to force upon you. You bake your own bread, you design your own home, you buy hand made pottery and so on. I think this is where we need to stop and rethink things. Because the idea that shopping can be politically radical, as long as you do it right, sounds a bit too good to be true.

The ideology of the rebel consumer is based on the idea that consumerism is driven by the desire to conform. Yet, few people believe this is true of themselves, it’s always the people down the road who are the compulsive conformists. And it’s true, sometimes kids demand a particular style of jeans or a given brand of sneaker in order to fit in and they say, ‘all the kids have them’.

But how many adults actually act this way? Right? Most adults spend their money not on things that help them fit in, but on things that allow them to stand out from the crowd. They spend their money on goods that confer distinction. People buy what makes them feel superior, whether by showing that they’re cooler, better connected, better informed, more discerning, morally superior, or just plain richer than everybody else. Consumerism in other words would appear to be a product of consumers trying to outdo one another, which means that it’s competitive consumption that causes the problem, not conformity. If consumers were conformist than we’d just all go out and buy exactly the same stuff and everybody would be happy. And furthermore there’d be no reason to go out and buy anything new.

So the desire to conform, this idea that we’re all trying to conform, fails to explain the compulsive nature of consumer behavior, why we keep spending more and more, even though we’re all over extended, even though it doesn’t bring anybody any happiness in the long run. So the question is why do we lay the blame for consumerism on those who are struggling to keep up with the Jones’? Because the fault would actually appear to lie with the Jones’. They’re the ones who started it all, by trying to one-up their neighbors. It’s their desire to stand out from the crowd, to be better than everyone else, that is responsible for ratcheting up consumption standards in their community. In other words, it’s the non-conformists, not the conformists, who are driving consumer spending.

Joseph Heath: One way to get a handle on consumerism in our society, is to look at the results coming out of recent ‘happiness’ research which is starting to have a lot of impact in economics profession. Some of this research results are sort of unsurprising, for example, they’ve discovered that people in wealthy industrialized societies are on average, happier than people who live in poorer ones. And its not hard to imagine why. With greater wealth comes greater ability to satisfy our needs and desires, to alleviate suffering and illness, and to carry out our life’s projects. From this, we might reasonably conclude that economic growth is a good thing.

Unfortunately there’s an unexpected twist in the story. While economic development has been shown to generate a steady increase in average happiness levels, after a certain level of development has been reached, the effect disappears completely. The rule of thumb developed amongst economists, considering the subject, is that once GDP reaches about US 10,000 per capita, further economic growth generates no gains in average happiness. In North America, we hit that level long ago, so despite spectacular economic growth since the Second World War, there’s been no overall increase in happiness. Some studies have even shown a decrease, in the United States in particular.

So there’s something very puzzling about this. It would not be surprising to find that as a country becomes richer and richer, additional economic growth generates increasingly smaller improvements in average happiness levels. That would be just a diminishing margin of return. What is shocking is the discover that growth ceases to produce any improvements at all. Every year our economy pumps out more cars, more houses, more consumer electronics, more labour saving appliances, more restaurant meals, more of everything. Furthermore, the quality of these goods increases dramatically year after year. Looking at a typical suburban home the most striking feature is the sheer abundance of material goods. But how could all of this stuff be and why are people buying it if it fails to please them? Of course, in the middle of all this wealth the middle class continues to complain about feeling squeezed economically. People are working harder, have more stress, and find themselves with less free time. No wonder that they’re not especially happy. But how could wealth bring about such consequences? Now that we’re richer, shouldn’t we all be working less?

So this is what we identify as the problem of consumerism. We try to develop a relatively neutral definition of the problem. Usually when people define consumerism their definition sort of presupposes their pet critique to it. Whereas we try to come up with this idea that, look, the basic problem of a consumer society is were busy busy busy producing and yet it’s generating no satisfaction. So the question is why this compulsion a character of our consumption?

One other clue that may help us to resolve the mystery is that there is still a positive correlation between relative wealth and happiness. Right? So in our society, absolute wealth, above a certain point, is essentially irrelevant to happiness. There’s no correlation. But relative wealth is still correlated with happiness. So in other words while merely having money, can’t make you happy, having more money that other people provides a pretty good start.

Now one hypothesis that we find most persuasive to explain this is the one proposed with greatest clarity in the 70s by Fred Hersch in his book called ‘The Social Limits of Growth’. Hersch observed that in the very poor countries, the basic problem is that people lack material goods. Economic growth is able to expand the supply of these goods, it allows us to manufacture more food, more housing, more clothing, and so forth, and thus growth generates lasting improvements in people’s welfare. In our society by contrast, material scarcity has been almost completely eliminated. And so the typical consumer’s income is spent mostly on what Hersch calls ‘positional goods’. Or goods for which access is determined not by absolutes but rather by relative ability to pay.

Some examples of positional goods include a penthouse apartment, a congestion free highway, or a PHD. These are all goods which are subject to social, not material, scarcity. So we can’t make more of them. Not everyone can live in a penthouse right? Cause somebody has to live in the apartments beneath it. And so the social scarcity in terms of apartments. Not everyone can drive on an open road, and of course, we can’t give everyone a PHD, if we did, we’d have to invent some other, higher accreditation in order to figure out who gets to teach at universities. The best illustration of a positional good phenomenon is actually real-estate, and it’s also the most economically significant because that’s what people who spend the big money on.

It’s a commonplace observation that the real-estate prices are determined by location, location, location. We sometimes forget the extant for which this is true. My house in downtown Toronto (just down the street) is over a hundred years old, slightly over 15 feet wide, and has about 1200 square feet of interior space. It’s a generic three story row house virtually identical to the 22 other houses on my side of the block. The real estate market has been quite robust lately as you all well know, the houses in my area have been selling for over $400,000. Needless to say, the same house, in another location, would not be worth quite as much. In fact, just down the road in Hamilton, you can buy an identical house on a lot of the same size for around $60,000. Whenever I tell people in Toronto this no one believes me, but I actually went on the MLS website and found a house exactly like mine (it’s a generic house) found a house exactly the same size as mine that was selling for about $57,000.

So obviously the price of downtown real-estate has very little do to with the materials that go into the construction of a dwelling. It has to do with how many other people want to live there. This is easy to notice when you buy a house in the city because there are often multiple bids on houses in attractive locations. Thus the eventual sale price of a house will be determined entirely by how much it takes to outbid other buyers. Yet while it is possible for developers to respond to rising house prices by simply building more houses, it is impossible for them to create more good locations. Downtown real-estate in intrinsically scarce, simply because downtown is where most people want to live. If they didn’t it wouldn’t be downtown, it’d be somewhere else. Thus the quest for location, like the quest for status, for example, is very close to being a zero-sum game.

And of course it’s even worse in the United States where the quality of public schools varies dramatically from neighborhood to neighborhood. And so consumers are competing with one another to get into good school districts as well. In the end those who but into good districts inevitably squeeze out those who are unable or unwilling to pay. Thus access to desirable real-estate is determined by one’s relative ability to pay. Like being a member of a exclusive club. For every winner, there must be a looser. And what is that if not competitive consumption?

The crucial point is that you’re not necessarily engaging in competitive consumption because you feel like you’re engaging in consumption, or because you envy the Jones’ or what have you. Right? In other words, you don’t have to be motivated by any source of base concerns about relative position. The fact that there are lots of types of good that are intriniscally competitive, because of their positional nature. So buying real-estate, or renting for that matter, is necessarily competitive because of the structure of that market. It doesn’t matter how you feel about other people in the market, you’re still competing with them and it has a zero-sum structure.

This happens of course not just downtown. People who buy in the suburbs are generally looking for easy access to the city combined with open space and quality of life associated with the country. Yet because this can only be achieved at the outer perimeter of the city each new suburban development leap-frogs existing suburbs creating the familiar expanding donut pattern of urban growth. Urban sprawl in other words, is a race to the bottom driven by a quest for good locations.

Now you can’t fix the problem by trying to get away from it all either, because when you do that you’re also embroiled in competition. Each person who takes out a piece of unspoiled wilderness or an isolated track of land it makes it that much harder for anybody else to get away from it all because you’re there right? So it’s like wanting to drive on an open road. Your presence denies that good to other people.

So because positional goods are intrinsically scarce, economic growth does nothing to increase their supply. An increase in my salary insofar as it’s just based on general growth in the economy does not help me to buy a nice house or a luxurious car when all my neighbors receive exactly the same increments in their salary. It simply increases the price of these goods. Furthermore we may all consume and more in a quest to achieve these positional goods. We commute further and further, we enroll our children with a hundred other extra-curricular activities (private school), we redecorate the house more and more often. Economic growth begins to resemble a giant arms race rather than a system of production in just satisfying human needs.

This is why, according to Hersch, economic growth in our society, rather than reducing the frustrations of the middle classes has tended rather to exacerbate it. Only industrialization, in Hersch’s view, created unrealistic expectations because it permitted the population at large to enjoy many of the privileges that had once been reserved for the wealthy alone, like indoor plumbing, central heating, things like that. So people got this idea that oh, as we get richer, I’m someday going to be able to have all the things that wealthy people have today. But those days are long gone, Hersch argues. What the wealthy have today can no longer be delivered to the rest of us tomorrow. Yet, as we individually grow richer this is what we expect. Why? Because almost all disposable income is being dedicated to the pursuit of positional goods.

Thus the problem of a consumer society is that as we become wealthier most of our consumption becomes dedicated to the attainment of positional goods which in turn locks us into zero-sum competitive consumption. Thus economic growth becomes no longer becomes the panacea that it once was. It produces no increase in overall satisfaction. Yet we remain locked into the high growth pattern with all the compromise that it entails. Simply because the competitive pressure of our consumption makes it prohibitively difficult for individuals to drop out of the race.

So there’s our diagnosis of what the problem of consumerism is, right? In our diagnosis, the problem is not conformity, the problem fundamentally is competitive consumption. So let me now bring these elements together and try to explain the claim then made at the beginning of the paper that the type of counter-cultural politics exemplified by Adbusters magazine, far from being the revolutionary doctrine that threatens to undermine capitalism, is actually one of the major forces driving consumerism. To begin with it is important to notice that counter-cultural rebellion seems a very important source of distinction.

The Critique of Mass Society portrays the typical consumer as a conformist, a mindless victim of advertising and corporate manipulation. Given that characterization, most people would want to show that they are not one of these mindless conformists. Not one of the sheep, or the lemmings going over the hill, or however you want to represent it. So how do you show that you’re not a victim of brainwashing and advertising?

By becoming a rebel consumer. By refusing to live in the suburbs, refusing to drive a minivan, refusing to wear a suit and tie, or otherwise consumer mainstream products and services. The problem is that not everybody can be a rebel. In fact, this sort of rebellion is itself a positional good. And that’s our crucial claim, right, counter-culture rebellion is a positional good.

For example, everybody would love to listen to fabulous underground bands that nobody has ever head of before, but virtually not all of us can do this. Once too many people find out about this great band, then they are no longer underground. And so we say that it’s sold out or ‘mainstream’ or even ‘co-opted by the system’. What is really happened is simply that too many people have started buying their albums so that listening to them no longer serves as a source of distinction. The real rebels therefore have to go off and find some new band to listen to that nobody else knows about in order to preserve this distinction and their sense of superiority over others.

The same basic pattern manifests itself in any number of areas including art, film, haircuts, food, footwear, speech patterns, travel destinations, living locations, employment and a dozen other lifestyle choices. Something starts out as underground, alternative, or subversive, known only to other non-conforming rebels, then the alternative press starts to talk about it, soon the mainstream media starts to talk about it and the next thing you know everybody’s in on the action. And so the rebel has to move on and the cycle of obsolescence begins once again.

The key point is that this process of rebellion and co-optation is not a plot on the part of the system to stifle dissent. In fact, we don’t think there’s any such thing as co-optation in the counter-cultural sense. What gets called co-optation is entirely a plot of competitive consumption on the part of rebel consumers. Advertsing has almost nothing to do with it. At best, it simply helps out those who are late to the party find their way. Now thanks to the myth of counter culture and the ideology of the rebel consumer, many of the people who are most opposed to consumerism nevertheless actively participate in the sort of behavior that drives it. Consider Naomi Klein.

She starts out her book No Logo by decrying the recent conversion of factory buildings in her Toronto neighborhood to quote, ‘Loft living condominiums’. She makes it clear to though to the reader that her place is the real deal, a genuine factory loft, stepped in working class authenticity, yet throbbing with urban street colour and culture and what she calls quote, ‘ a rock video aesthetic’. Klein also drops enough hints about her neighborhood that any reader familiar with Toronto knows that she was living in the King-Spadina area and any reader with a feel for how social class in Canada works would know that at the time Klein was writing, a genuine factory loft at King-Spadina area was one of the coolest, most desirable pieces of real-estate in the country.

Unlike merely expensive neighborhoods in Toronto like Rosedale and Forest Hill, where its possible to buy your way in, genuine factory lofts in Klein’s neighborhood could be acquired only by people with superior social connections. This is because they contravened zoning regulations and so could not be bought or leased on the open market. Only the most exclusive segment of the cultural elite, the genuinely cool people, could get access to them.

Unfortunately for Klein, the City of Toronto, as part of a very enlightened and successful strategy to slow urban sprawl, decided to re-zone all the downtown neighborhoods to permit mixed usage’s. King-Spadina was re-zoned to permit any combination of industrial, commercial, and residential use. Before long, an enormous revitalization of the neighborhood began as old warehouses and factories were renovated, condominium complexes were built, new restaurants opened and so forth. Yet, in Klein’s perspective it was a disaster, why? Because the re-zoning allowed yuppies to buy there way into her neighborhood, something they previously could not do. What’s wrong with yuppies? Other than being yuppies, what crime did they commit?

Klein claims, (of course, no one’s actually a yuppie right? Like, I know people who are such yuppies who complain about yuppies) … part of our point … Anyhow, Klein claims that these yuppies brought with them quote, ‘a painful new self-consciousness’ to the neighborhood. But as the rest of the introduction to No Logo demonstrates, she too is conscious, painfully so, of her surroundings. She describes her neighborhood as one where quote, ‘in the 20s and 30s, Russian and Polish immigrants darted back and forth, ducking into delies to argue about Trotsky and the leadership of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union’. Emma Goldman we are told, the famed anarchist and labour leader, once lived on her street. How exciting for Klein! What a tremendous source of distinction that must be! It is here we can see the true nature of her complaint.

The arrival of these yuppies led to an erosion of her social status. Her complaints about commercialization are nothing but an expression of this loss of distinction. Ten years ago [1994] saying I live in a loft at King-Spadina sent a very clear message to anybody who has ears to listen. It said ‘I am extremely cool. Quite possibly cooler than you’. But with a dearth of new condominium complexes and in-flight of yuppies, the noise threatened King and Spadina as a signal. When you say you live in a loft at King and Spadina how will people know you live in a real loft and not just one of those yuppie ones? Klein can see only one solution. If the landlord decides to convert her building to a condominium she will have to move out. She discusses this in No Logo as if it were self-evident. Yet, if the landlord decides to convert her building, why not just buy her loft? The problem of course is that a loft living condominium doesn’t have quite the cachet of a genuine industrial loft. It becomes, as Klein puts it, merely an apartment with quote, ‘exceptionally high ceilings’.

Here we can see the real problem. It’s not the landlord threatening to drive her from the neighborhood, it’s the fear of loss of distinction. What Klein fails to observe is that the cachet associated with her neighborhood is precisely what’s driving the real estate market. It’s what creates a value of all these yuppie loft living condominiums. People buy these lofts because they want to be cool like Naomi Klein. Or more specifically they want some of her for social status. And naturally she’s not immune.

This is a demonstration of the forces driving competitive consumption in it’s darkest form. The extraordinary thing is they pass completely unnoticed, even though they occur in the Introduction of a book that has become adopted as the Bible of the anti-consumerism movement. So here we have the paradox of anti-consumerism. The major remedy of the consumer society which has been adopted almost without question by the Left and by the radicals more generally has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumer capitalism. The Adbusters sneaker is just the latest and most extraordinary example. This is also why counter-cultural rebellion is not a threat to the system, but rather has become the system.

Ok, to conclude – in the Rebel Sell, what we’re offering is what we call, (not everyone calls but we call) a left-wing critique of counter-cultural thinking. What makes it left-wing? Most of us are familiar with the right-wing critique of counterculture, from Alan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind to David Frum’s book about the 70s, How we got Here. What these critics share with the counter-culture is the conviction that non conformity represents a genuine threat to the system or to the established order.

The Right Wing simply thinks that the system is good and therefore should not be overthrown. Thus, Frum laments things like rising divorce rates, the prospects of gay marriage, while Allan Bloom demonizes Mick Jaggar for his role in corrupting the youth and turning them away from the wisdom of the great books. For those of you keeping score, that’s Sir Mick Jaggar, Peer of the Realm. (Keith Richards actually got upset when Mick Jaggar got knighted, he accused him of selling out, which I though was nice, it suggests that Keith Richards believes he himself as not done that).

Anyhow, as you can see, we reject the idea that sort of non-conformity that characterized counter-culture rebellion is any threat to the system whatsoever. What we share with the counter-cultural Left though is a recognition that all is not well in our society. And that there is much that can be improved.

There’s too much poverty and inequality, both within Canada and between the developed and developing world, there’s over-work, that is average hours of work increased in North America in the last ten … in the last decade, which is something that for the most part makes absolutely no sense. So we need to make sure, for example, that globalization makes things better and not worse, we need to be on guard against environmental degradation and unsustainable economic activities exacerbated by excessive consumption.

Finally, Klein and her followers are right, we’re swimming in a sea of advertising, and much of it unwelcome, and some of it positively reprehensible. Where we disagree with the counter-cultural Left is over the means we should use to achieve our goals on these and other issues. We reject the supposedly deeper cultural solutions to these problems and prefer to work with institutions using legislative and market based initiatives whenever possible.

To deal with the excesses of competitive consumption amongst students for example, we recommend a return to mandatory school uniforms in public schools, Pink Floyd aside. This actually is a nice example of how conformity can actually solve the problem of consumerism by eliminating competitive consumption. When it comes to the environment a system of tradable pollution permits would do more to alleviate atmospheric pollution than any think-globally-act-locally initiative.

Finally, if you’re really worried about advertising and brand bullies, it would be enormously easy to strike a devastating blow against the practice with a simple change in the tax code. The government could stop treating advertising expenditures as a fully tax deductible business expense. Much as they did with entertainment expenses in Canada several years ago. Advertising is already a separately itemized expense category so the change wouldn’t even generate any additional paperwork for business but this little tweak in the tax code would have a greater impact on advertising than all the cultural jamming in the world.

Yet these and other institutional reforms are systematically rejected or undervalued by the counter-cultural Left on the grounds that they are coercive, in that they buy into the logic of the system. This tendency to reject institutional initiative leaves counter cultural activists and thinkers to ignore perfectly good solutions to concrete social problems in the name of deeper or more radical alternatives that can never be effectively implemented. By rejecting each proposal of this short of total transformation of human consciousness and culture, counter-cultural activists too often wind up exacerbating precisely the problems they were hoping to solve. Thus, counter-culture thinking in our analysis is not merely unhelpful; it often positively impedes our ability to bring about the reforms necessary to achievement of increased welfare and social justice in our society. Thank you.

~

Question: Why isn’t a more self-aware consumption the way to go?

Andrew Potter: It’s a big question, an I answer, [addressing Heath]: maybe I’ll say something and you’ll jump in … we were just talking about organic today – one problem … I sat in on a panel about consumerism last year and at the end of it we all had to go around, give one suggestion about doing something about consumerism, and the first person said, I really think we need to do is make sure we get our clothes handmade locally if we can, buy them from local manufactures and have shoes handmade if you can. And the next guy, said, yeah, I think you should eat organically and source all your produce locally to someone as much as you can.

The first answer to that is, that does nothing about solving consumerism, right, you’re still shopping. Second answer is this distinction you want to draw between corporate – the things that corporations give you [vs.] that the local people are giving you – well, it’s a bit fraudulent distinction when one sort of realizes that companies like Starbucks and The Gap both started as tiny little boutiques in San Francisco and Seattle offering the sort of overvalued prize to people and they got big, right, because lots of people want the distinction that goes along with that.

And third answer is organic produce (Joe and I were talking about this today) is very expensive. Where’s the biggest organic produce grocery store in town right? It’s in Yorkdale – Yorkville, sorry I don’t live here anymore…it’s in Yorkville. And it’s very expensive. And where are the really good organic restaurants – they’re not in Parkdale. And they’re not in Regent Park.

Yes, so you need to realize that what you’re doing here is in engaging in practices that might be for a lot of people about gaining status and not necessarily about doing anything else. I mean, I certainly haven’t head any left wing people advocate for subsidies or food stamps for the poor to go buy organic produce at Whole Foods, that certainly hasn’t been tried.

Joe Heath: I just want to say that one of the points we make in the book and … we’re heavily influenced by this really nice book that I’ve never seen discussed called The Sixties by Arthur Marwick, an historian, and one the points he makes is I think – our two central academic sources for this where we’ve sort of taken ideas is first off Thomas Frank is mentioned in the paper, and then Marwick because both of them (Thomas Frank is the one who caught onto this idea that it’s counter-culture rebellion driving consumerism and he didn’t articulate it that clearly but he’s clearly, clearly is the pioneer of this critique). And then Marwick thematizes the counter-cultural idea and treats it theorectially in a way we found really really helpful in formulating our thoughts.

But Marwick’s point is that the counter-culture has been intensely entrepreneurial from the get go. And he does (of course, I was born in the late 60s I have no living memory of all this sort of stuff) but there all these, you know, if you look at the fashion industry, or if you look at cosmetics and beauty and so on, it’s extraordinary the number of people who all got their start in the counter-culture in London, like Vidal Sassoon… it never occurred to me that he was like a rebel at one point right, but the counter culture and the do-it-yourself scene – this idea that it’s virtuous to do things yourself, doing your own gig or whatever instead of buying mass produced goods and so forth, I mean that’s the spirit of capitalism right, that’s called entrepreneurship and it’s not an accident from the very beginning people have been making real money out of counter-cultural activities.

Why? Because often the counter-culture generates better products. And as a result, they quote ‘sell-out’, right, so as we say it’s not an accident that San Francisco is the home of the three-dollar late and the four-dollar sour dough. It’s because counter-culture made better bread, better coffee, and than that generates the formula that gave the world Starbucks. So, you know, there’s nothing wrong with engaging in such activities but I’m not sure in what sense any of them are virtuous. And certainly none of them are contrary to the corporate system. If anything the counter-culture is an incubator for the corporate system.

Question: Do we have to legislate change?

Andrew Potter: Joe and I both sort of think, yeah, to some extant. I in particular, and people probably getting tired of hearing this rant – I was really annoyed during the last federal election campaign [June 2004] with the amount of media attention that was paid to ‘the alienated voter’ right, that was the most popular voter, was the voter who thought that all politicians were liars, that no matter who won the system was going to get in anyway or something ridiculous like this right. And you know, there was a group of people going around advocating eating your ballot, as the only way of truly jamming the system – the Edible Ballot society, they got a lot of play on the CBC and so on, without anybody actually saying, hey, you know, are you stupid or what?

It was really obnoxious and I think telling people no matter what they do the system’s still going to be there is a really unhelpful way of approaching the system. There’s nothing wrong with piecemeal change, but it’s a lot of work. For a lot of people it’s too much work and they prefer the parties that go on at night at the latest culture jam or the anti-globalization protests. And yeah, it’s square advice but politics is an extremely square endeavor.

Joe Heath: Maybe I’ll just say something about that as well. I think an example of how little power we have as consumers, and this sort of (and this is the sort of thing I think that will get looked back on as the morality tale of the late 20th Century) is SUVs. Where it’s a good example – SUVs are super in one respect, which is if you run into somebody, the person in the larger vehicle is more likely to survive the crash than the person in the smaller vehicle and so it’s a good example of safety in that respect as a positional good, right, in other words it’s not the absolute size of your vehicle that guarantees your safety, it’s the relative size of your vehicle that guarantees your safety.

And so, people have an incentive to buy vehicles larger than the average vehicle on the road. And because of that it sets off a race to the bottom whereby people then have to buy larger and larger and larger vehicles in order to protect their safety, their kids, whatever. What can you do as a consumer? Well, I mean you can clearly … you know I drive a Mini, so obviously I’ve opted out of that particular arms race. But frankly, all that does it make it a lot easier for other people to run around in their SUVs and see right over my hood, and also, it doesn’t address the fundamental problem, which is I’m accepting a major compromise in safety in order to drive a smaller car.

So I’m being virtuous, but it doesn’t really solve the problem. So when we talk about traditional political action – the only thing that’s going to fix that problem, of expanding vehicle size, is a regulatory solution. I just can’t posibly imagine (or a price solution – I mean gas prices might eventually do it) but I just can’t see how any sort of consumer based or moral solution is ever going to work, simply because it generates the exploitation of the moral by the immoral, right, the people who are willing to play along simply make it that much more beneficial for the people who refuse to play along. So unless you got some laws in there, you simply can’t resolve the problem.

Question: Isn’t the Left about more than just counter-culture?

Joe Heath: The claim is that we’ve characterized the left as suggesting it’s all about traditional counter-cultural politics whereas in fact it’s all about bread and butter issues. At no point to we say that the Left is the counter-cultural, what we say is that counter-cultural thinking has had an enormous influence on the Left, and that influence has been unhelpful.

There’s no question that back in the 60s the political activists, the civil-rights and anti-war movement and the counter-culture regarded themselves as being very very distinct and often antagonistic, in the 70s the two got sort of blurred so after then it’s difficult to tell the difference between the two of them. Let me give an example of the proposal I made at the very end, about advertising, elimintating the tax deductibility of advertising as a business expense. It’s an idea that comes from Robert Frank, an economist at Cornell. It’s gotten no play on the Left, and when you think about No Logo, of course there’s all sorts of discussion about all sorts of issues – global poverty and factory conditions and so forth. But the core thesis of the book is that governments are controlled by corporations, and corporations are able – the root of corporate power is the brand.

In other words, it’s the colonization of consciousness which gives corporations the capacity to dictate public policy. Therefore, rather than engaging in direct political action, where you’re playing basically a rigged game, what you need to attack is the root of the system, which leads to corporate domination and that’s advertising. Right? So you have very clearly articulated theory, which says that (I mean, you know) it diagnosis all kinds of problems. But what does it say about the solution? It says the solution is to attack advertising. And that’s based upon a theory that is its origins in The Critique of Mass Society we think is false.

Now, think about that for a minute. Look at the seriousness of the issues which Klein lays out in No Logo, right, and then she says lets address this by attacking brands. Well, what if the theory that says brands are responsible for all this is mistaken? What a disastrous political miscalculation to want treat issues of that level of seriousness with a kind of … in what we take to be a very trivial and superficial culture jamming type politics.

Our proposal for example for eliminating the tax-deductibility of advertising, not only is not mooted and has gotten no play on the Left, we’ve actually encountered significant resistance to it. Like irate letters to the editor of This Magazine saying that people are not interested in our kind of superficial solution to the problems of advertising, you know, they want something deeper, a way of transforming consciousness, I mean people use these actual words in objecting to our proposal. Now, insofar as that remains a powerful element in the Left, I think there’s value in this kind of critique.

Question: What do you think about the beauty industry?

Joe Heath: I have to say actually there was a chapter cut out of the book, where we actually had an extensive discussion of cosmetics and the beauty industry. So let me say briefly what the argument was.

There I complained about the other Naomi, Naomi Wolfe, because The Beauty Myth is, if you read it carefully, it is an absolutely orthodox presentation of the counter cultural theory. In other words, beauty in her view is an ideology which is designed to impose oppression upon women, ultimately to deny them pleasure. The way the counter-cultural idea is then formulated is in terms of the following analysis: it says, look, what the industry does through advertising is they set up archetypes of female beauty and then women, being conformists, try to look like women in the magazines.

And so it’s a system of conformity fundamentally is how cosmetics and beauty industry functions. It’s that compulsive conformity which generates consumerism amongst women and the unproductive spending on cosmetics when the money could be used on more useful endeavors. Now, we think that’s a fundamentally mistaken analysis of how this works, because again, consumerism is not about conformity.

What that analysis completely ignores is the competitive structure of beauty. So this idea that there are archetypes that people try to conform to is really not how beauty works right? People get very very tangible advantages from being more beautiful then the people around them. Being the best looking in your office, being the best looking person in the bar. What matters is not how, you know, whether you look like Linda Evangelista, what matters is that you look better than the people who are in your competition, in the bar, or at work, or wherever you may be. That’s where you get the advantages from, and therefore what drives the cosmetics industry largely (and I think you can see this really clearly in plastic surgery) is competition amongst consumers.

What the corporations are doing is they’re basically functioning like arms merchants – they’re supplying the materials but they’re not the ones who are creating the conflict. Ultimately, it’s competitive behavior. And that’s why the kind of prescription that Naomi Wolfe gives in The Beauty Myth are unhelpful, because her view is it’s all a big ideology, you need to snap out of it, right, you need to just kind of realize one day that there’s this giant system of repression that wants you to conform and so you’re supposed to just stop, right. And of course, you know, every woman I know read the book and none of them stopped. Because – why? – because it fails to recognize the competitive structure of beauty and the fact is if you drop out of that competition, just like if you decide not to buy a bigger car, or if you decide not to buy desirable real-estate, if you decide to participate and make use of any cosmetic products that are available or fashionable, clothing or whatever – in other words, if you decide to look dumpy, you suffer severe social consequences for that. Not so at universities….life outside of university.

That’s why you know, people read then book and it didn’t do anything to affect this behavior, because the book misdiagnoses the problem, suggests that it’s an ideology when in fact it’s not. So actually, I’m glad you asked the question because our poor chapter afterwards got cut out tired to identify as a classic example of counter-cultural thinking. And it also shows the extant to which counter-cultural thinking has seriously dominated feminist thought since the 1960s as well.

Question: Aren’t competitiveness and consumerism a natural part of being human?

Andrew Potter: On the face of it, I think it’s certainly the case that, you’ll be hard pressed to find a genuinely, a genuine culture that does not have status hierarchy. I don’t think there ever has been one, right, what that says about anything natural, I don’t know. It certainly says something about the circumstances in which humans find themselves.

Part of the problem is that, in North American society and so on, we live under the ethos of authenticity and individuality and so on, which puts a premium on Polonius’ injunction to Laertes, ‘this above all, to thine own self be true’. Now the problem becomes once being individual suddenly becomes not ‘doing what you want to do’ but ‘doing what other people aren’t doing’. That instantly puts you in the competitive cycle against the masses. You can see this it didn’t necessarily come from counter culture, you find it in Emerson in his essay, Self-Reliance, Emmerson says ‘he who would be a man must first become a non-conformist’. Stay away from the masses and so on.

It certainly – this idea that you distance yourself from others and you distinguish yourself -who you are as an individual, is essentially distinguish from what other people are doing. It certainly an essential part of the ideology of our society. And you have to do a lot of work to get rid of that.

Joe and I actually say, look, you know, at one point in the book, you want to be a rebel? Wear a uniform. You want to strike a blow against consumerism in this society? Wear the exact same thing every day. We have a professor, a colleague of Joe’s, a professor of mine, wears the exact same thing every day, you know why, he’s a communist. You know, he knows this is how you do it.

Heath: We mean that is the nicest way

[Laughter from the audience re: commie comment]

Potter: ….in the nicest way yeah. The Varsity once ran…

Heath:He’s a communist, ‘bless his soul’.

Potter: Bless his soul, right. The Varsity [U of T student newspaper] once ran a photo of him, sitting at a desk on career day or something like that it said, ‘The Last Communist on Earth’. There really is two ways of rebelling, you can do something extremely criminal, you know, Charles Manson was a rebel, or you actually strike a blow against consumerism, by you know, don’t engage in the process of distinction.

Thanks guys, it’s been great.